There were more than a few people in Bahrain who felt that the TV coverage of the Grand Prix was decidedly strange – and not up to the usual high standards that the sport has been used to in recent years. In the old days, individual Grands Prix were televised by different local broadcasting organisations and that meant that the coverage was patchy and that fans would find themselves screaming at their TVs as the local directors ordered the cameras to follow the local heroes, even if they were only wombling along in a dull 17th place.
The urge to create more consistent coverage was the motivation behind the gradual disappearance of the old “host broadcasters” and the coverage of the sport being created almost exclusively by Formula One Management (FOM), the TV production and distribution business of the Formula One group. These days the only remaining host broadcaster is Télé Monte Carlo, which provides the coverage of the Monaco Grand Prix. All the other races now use a world feed produced by FOM from its mobile production unit that travels to all the races. This is fine as long as the TV producers are left to operate as they would in a normal media operation and do not show any favouritism to one team or another. If that is the case, the TV feed basically ceases to be journalism and becomes propaganda. This has always been a bit of a fine line and it is why democracies have always relied on either commercial TV stations or have created independent but government-funded broadcasters to ensure that coverage is fair and balanced. One tends to pay limited attention to state television that only provides a one-sided view of events.
When you stop and think about it, however, having a TV production company that is part of the Commercial Rights Holder organisation does leave the way open for abuse. Normally no-one in F1 thinks twice about this but there have been a couple of times in the past when questions have been asked, notably a few years ago in Bahrain when Force India decided to sit out a session after some of the team staff witnessed some of the rioting going on at that time.
This year, you would have to be a forensic scientist to find traces of the Manor team in race coverage. Admittedly, the cars are not up to speed but it has sometimes felt as though the cameras were avoiding Manor cars. The odd thing was that this was the impression in Bahrain, in relation to Mercedes Benz.
Now it is pretty hard to avoid showing the leader of a motor race, particularly if there is a fight going on at the front, but it was very definitely what some people thought as we watched Saubers when the battle at the front was tense and interesting. One could not put this down to incompetence because of the usually high standards of the production work, so questions were asked.
One might ask what a team gets (or loses) from the amount of coverage it receives and the answer to that is very clearly money. Teams get paid by their results on the track, but also from the amount of time that their cars are seen on TV. If someone can control the amount of TV time that a team gets then one can affect these numbers and so make it harder to raise money. Last year coverage of Mercedes was almost at saturation point and that looked good when the end of season reports came in showing the advertising value equivalency (AVE) figures for Mercedes – and the brands featured on the cars. Reducing the time that a car is seen on screen is thus a way to reduce AVE and to make the property less valuable.
One hopes that TV coverage is not being used as a political weapon.